Whether you have 48 hours in Milwaukee or are popping in for an evening, Milwaukee rolls out the red carpet for tourists. Here’s a diverse lineup of Milwaukee treasures, including some lesser-known gems. Many sites are also popular as “stay-cation” destinations for Greater Milwaukee residents.
Explore Milwaukee’s exceptional Lakefront
Contiguous public parks run along Lake Michigan nearly the entire length of the county. Start at any point and enjoy awesome views and easy access—by foot, bicycle or car. Numerous bridges and stairways lead to parks with sandy beaches, marinas, multi-use trails, green space and cultural destinations. You can buy and fly a kite in Veterans Park, savor a burger and frozen custard at Northpoint, sip drinks at Bradford Beach’s Tiki Bar, and hike through natural ravines in Lake Park or Grant Park.
Enjoy fresh-roasted joe at a local coffee shop
Milwaukee is home to numerous lines of exceptional coffee. You’ll find a Colectivo café (serving food all day) in nearly every part of town; their trademark spaces open to the outdoors in warm weather and are the “third space” of many locals.
Stone Creek Coffee, which also has multiple shops, celebrates the city in its coffee lines and other promotional materials. Stone Creek also offers free tours at noon on Sundays at their Factory Café (422 N. 5th St), a half block from Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station. Anodyne and Valentine are also homegrown businesses with fewer shops but dedicated patrons.
Experience the iconic Domes
Officially called the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, The Domes encompass displays of tropical plants, desert flora and a Show Dome with ever-changing floral displays. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named them a National Treasure, and is working with local citizens to seek a path to preservation. The three unique-in-the-world, beehive-shaped glasshouses are also considered a “Modernist marvel.”
Check out a museum or three
Plan to set aside at least two hours to take in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exceptional permanent collection and temporary exhibitions presented within world-class architecture. Dining options include an upscale restaurant and two cafes. It’s also worth seeing the white-winged Calatrava addition from O’Donnell Park when it opens or closes, including for a midday spectacle. Walk there from the east end of Wisconsin Avenue or park in the O’Donnell garage. MAM’s lakefront neighbors include Discovery World and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. The Milwaukee Public Museum on 8th and Wells offers many great natural-history and cultural exhibits, including the ever-popular “Streets of Old Milwaukee.” The Harley-Davidson Museum on 6th Street in the Menomonee Valley recounts the history of the world-renowned motorcycles on a waterfront campus with a terrific café called Motor.
Get out on the water
Enjoy incomparable views of the city on one of numerous cruises that depart seasonally throughout the day (and some into the evening) from points along the Milwaukee River. Some cruises feature historians recounting fascinating stories of the Cream City’s heritage. Other cruises boast a cocktail hour with party-down music.
Another way to see Milwaukee by boat is to rent a kayak or canoe from the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. Or rent kayaks from downtown riverfront locations. You can even take a leisurely paddleboat ride on a lagoon in Veterans Park.
Sample some beer
Beer gardens, originally ubiquitous in 19th-century Milwaukee, have become popular again, especially in Milwaukee County Parks. Drink from steins at long tables in picturesque settings, often accompanied by live music. Sprecher Brewing hosts “traveling beer gardens” and other parks are home to permanent ones.
Lakefront Brewery tours charge $9-$10 and start with a tasting before a lively 45-minute walk-through of a fun-time brewery located along Milwaukee’s RiverWalk. Friday evenings you can also enjoy a classic Milwaukee fish fry and catch a polka band. The MillerCoors daily free tours offer a behind-the-scenes look at one of Milwaukee’s original Big Four breweries (even if its local operation here is now a satellite operation). The Visitor Center is located at 44th and State. Tours includes a visit to built-into-a-hillside Historic Caves and free beer samples.
Eat like a local foodie
Diverse eateries cater to every palate, from farm-to-table freshness to ever-popular Friday night “fish frys.” As a Midwestern melting pot, Milwaukee also offers exceptional international cuisine. Check out one of the many terrific Mexican restaurants on the South Side or classic German fare at Mader’s (Downtown) or Kegel’s Inn (West Allis). Or sample Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, Ethiopian or Italian food, to name just a few authentic ethnic restaurants.
Chill out at free concerts in the park
“Jazz in the Park” in Downtown’s Cathedral Square presents concerts in varied genres on Thursday evenings all summer long. Or groove to “River Rhythms” on Wednesdays at Pere Marquette Park, “Chill on the Hill” in Bay View’s Humboldt Park on Tuesdays, or series in other Milwaukee County Parks. COA’s Skyline Music Series at Kadish Park in Riverwest provides the most breathtaking views of Downtown and a lineup of often-danceable bands on Tuesday evenings.
Don’t miss a chance to hear favorite-son Paul Cebar and his Tomorrow Sound band, a local treasure enjoyed far beyond Brew City.
Get festive in the “City of Festivals”
Summerfest is the “Big Gig” in late June and July, with 11 days of big-name headliners as well as other brilliant performers. Henry Maier Festival Park also hosts other festivals during many summer weekends, starting with Pridefest in June. Irish Fest is reportedly the biggest Celtic celebration in the world. Others include Festa Italiana, Oktoberfest, Polish Fest and Indian Summer Festival, a celebration of Native American culture. More festivals happen on streets closed off for the day, at churches and in lakefront parks, so you’re likely to find a festival happening on any summer weekend.
The biggest and best free street festival is Bastille Days, located in and around Cathedral Square and the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus (starting this year on Thursday June 13 for four days). Local chanteuse Robin Pluer singing gloriously in French and English has been a highlight of Bastille Days for nearly two decades.
Roam a party-scene street
Milwaukee was ranked in 2012 as the city with the second-most bars per capita (8.5 per 10,000 people), trailing New Orleans. Wherever you wander, you’ll likely come across a pub, brewhouse, cocktail lounge nightclub or other establishment with adult beverages. In some hot-spot areas you’ll find dozens: Water St., Old World Third St., Jefferson St., Brady St. and South Second St., plus East North Avenue and the Historic Third Ward, just in Greater Downtown. For an off-the-beaten-track bar, visit the exuberantly creative Art Bar in Riverwest. It offers 60 craft beers, classic cocktails, multiple game options, changing exhibitions and live music on weekends at (722 E. Burleigh St.). The same owners also run a romantic hideaway called Two, located next door.